Wednesday, 9 September 2009
The Triumph of Speech Debelle, or War On The Bullshit
As a general rule I prefer my rap music raw and bloody. If it was a steak, and the waiter asked me how I'd like it, I'd probably say: cut its horns off and wipe its arse. For me, the worst crime a rapper can commit is to be boring, which is the main problem I have with a good 95% of the tedium that passes for so-called 'conscious hip-hop'. I never tire of reminding people who moan about how bloated and corporate rap has become that the cover of the debut album by the greatest rapper ever to walk the earth features him posing in a garish leather Dapper Dan Gucci suit, weighed down by half a ton of tom and waving a huge wad of cash. Turn over the sleeve and he's pictured rubbing shoulders with some of the most fearsome gangsters and drug-dealers to be found in the whole of the five boroughs during the 1980s. This was how Rakim wanted to present himself to the world in 1987. Yet his lyrics remain some of the most densely complex, nuanced, innovative and, yes, conscious examples of the emcee's art you'll ever hear, and amongst the true high-water marks of the form.
Rap has always been full of contradictions, and its those contradictions that continue to draw me to it almost thirty years after I bought my first Kurtis Blow record. But I still find myself infuriated by the enduring and widespread refusal to accept rap on anything like its own terms. After Sylvia Robinson strongarmed Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (or more accurately, Melle Mel) into recording The Message, there began to emerge a school of thought which asserted that rap ought to possess an explicit political agenda if it was to have any real worth. These kind of criticisms have been levelled at black music for donkeys years - look at the reverence in which Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield are still held compared to Barry White or Isaac Hayes, for example. All four were great artists, but the main difference is that the former pair would occasionally sing and write about social issues, whilst the latter generally chose relationships as their preferred subject matter. The end result of which was that Barry White became the basis for a running gag on Ally McBeal, the passing of Isaac Hayes was widely reported as 'South Park's Chef Dies', and neither are ever likely to be taken as seriously as Curtis or Marvin are.
Last night, Speech Debelle won the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Music Prize for her debut album, Speech Therapy. Almost immediately, Twatter was overwhelmed by comments from people perhaps too young to remember Hazel O'Connor or 400 Blows, all convinced that the likes of La Roux, Florence and the Machine or Friendly Fires had been robbed. Damning it with a mixture of faint praise and jaw-droppingly cretinous reductionism, the Daily Telegraph's Neil McCormick described it on his Twitter feed as "the committee choice, [a] liberal hard life coffee table hip hop album no one could argue against." Elsewhere amongst the 'can't see further than the end of my nose' crowd, she was dismissed as 'this year's Ms Dynamite', as if to say, 'what's so innovative and original about this, then?' This conveniently sidesteps the idea that acts like La Roux or Friendly Fires might actually be riding a sort of voguish wave of familiar faux-80s nostalgia rather than acting as standard-bearers for any sort of originality, yet there seems to be a constant clamour for rap to be more 'innovative'. This is essentially a demand that the music be less like rap and more like something else, and it's often based on a fairly narrow familiarity with the music itself. But this insistence on measuring rap against the artistic yardsticks of other musical forms misses a major point about black music; that sometimes it's just about having a voice - any sort of voice - and being heard. 'Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat', anyone? After all, there's nothing more unique than your own voice, and that in itself can be much more of a political statement than all the earnest 'message' rhymes and revolutionary rhetoric in the world.
Such unvarnished sincerity is one of the strengths of Speech Therapy - it doesn't sound forced or unnatural. It isn't the sound of someone speaking in a voice that's not really theirs, nor does it try especially hard to draw attention to itself. In fact, it often sounds as if you're eavesdropping on a young woman having a conversation with herself (perhaps because she's all too familiar with not being listened to?). When I first heard it, I began to imagine Speech Debelle riding around South London on the top deck of a bus, little white buds in her ears, absent-mindedly working up lyrics while she listened to Young Marble Giants, one of those mid-70s John Betjeman albums or the soundtrack to Kes on her iPod, rather than 2Pac or Lil' Wayne. There's a welcoming contrast between the music's carefree, loose-limbed effortlessness and the rather more earthbound nature of the words that sit on top of it. A couple of listens in, and I was beginning to be reminded of Devin The Dude, whose daydreamy, introspective self-deprecation usually concerns itself with running out of weed, being stuck driving a clapped-out car or trying to explain to the kid of the single mother you're dating why it is you drink, swear and grab your dick so much on stage. Speech's preoccupations are a little grimmer - homelessness (Searching), absent fathers (Daddy's Little Girl), self-doubt (Finish This Album) - and the kind of Too Short-inspired slackness that often characterises Devin's material is nowhere to be heard. Instead, Speech manages to strike that delicate balance between documenting the humdrum banality of familiar trials and tribulations, and submitting herself to the kind of harsh, hypertension-inducing self-examination that's a hallmark of giants of the game like Beanie Sigel or Scarface. It is, as they say, a beautiful thing.
For me, rap will always be at its love-it-or-shove-it best when, for better or worse, it's being itself, and let's be clear about this, Speech Therapy is a rap record. Even though it couldn't be more different on a superficial level, it still sits comfortably alongside DJ Quik and Kurupt's superb BlaQKout as one of the very few albums of 2009 that I'm happy to give up an hour of my time for. I couldn't give a tuppenny fuck for the opinions of people who prefer to cheerlead for artfully-styled, Trustafarian, stage-school 'kookiness' or 'oh, is it 1981 again already?' art-rock that pretends it's never heard of XTC. I have nothing but contempt for anyone peddling the witless, moronic canard that Speech Debelle's moment of glory is somehow a sop to 'political correctness'. Judging by many of the responses to her triumph, there are still a lot of people out there who haven't got to grips with the notion that it mightn't be a bad idea to say fuck-all when you don't actually know what you're on about. Not only that, but it's rude to interrupt when somebody else is talking. Right now, Speech Debelle is talking, so shut your yap and listen.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.